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Interest Groups and Collective Action on the Internet
The Business Roundtable is a unique business-oriented interest group. The BRT was established in 1972, founded in the belief that the chief executive officers of major corporations should take an increased role in political debates and public policy on economic and trade issues. Indeed, the entire membership of the BRT is comprised of CEOs. However, a permanent seat on the BRT is granted to a company, not its CEO. For example, Philip Condit currently fills Boeing’s seat on the BRT, but if Boeing replaced Condit as CEO, his replacement would serve as Boeing’s representative.
There are currently 131 corporations with seats on the BRT. This size is relatively small and the high-profile nature of its members makes the organization very influential in political circles. BRT is sometimes criticized as a “privileged group,” particularly by union-oriented interest groups, such as the AFL-CIO. Another benefit of BRT’s small membership is their capacity to overcome the collective action problem outlined by Mancur Olson in, The Logic of Collective Action. This theory says that political groups with large memberships face a “free-rider problem.” Each individual member rationally views their own participation as insignificant and therefore, does not actively participate even though they still receive the benefits in the end1. The BRT overcomes this problem through their small membership and their ability to meet face-to-face, once a year in Washington to set their agenda for the year and assign issue-oriented taskforces. Personalized face-to-face meetings strengthen the relationships between members and reduce the chance of “free riding.”
The BRT has a single stated objective – “to promote policies that will lead to sustainable, non-inflationary, long-term growth in the U.S. economy.” Although each member speaks as a individual, even before lawmakers, the BRT believes that “the basic interests of business closely parallel the interests of the American people who are directly involved as consumers, employees, shareholders, and suppliers.” In fact, the 131 members of BRT have a combined workforce of more than 10 million employees in the U.S.2
BRT membership is granted by invitation only. The company is the member and its representative is the Chief Executive Officer. The participation of the CEO is the distinguishing feature of the BRT. The BRT is headed by a chairman, two co-chairmen, a nominating committee chairman, a president and executive director. The current chairman is John T. Dillon of International Paper. The BRT is further broken down into a Planning Committee and a Policy Committee, each of which meet four times a year in Washington, D.C. A member cannot send a representative to serve in his place at meetings, thus making them more or less mandatory. The BRT is financed through a schedule of dues based on member companies’ sales and stockholder’s equity.
The BRT agenda for 2001 includes civil justice reform; corporate governance; digital economy; education; environment, technology, & the economy; fiscal policy; health and retirement; human resources; and international trade – this last topic is to be a focal point of this paper. As part of the International Trade Initiative, the BRT is pursuing the political goal: passage of H.R. 3005 – a renewal of the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) of the President of the U.S.
Empirically, the Internet has a marginal impact on the BRT’s capacity to be effective as an interest group. Though members may use e-mail to stay in contact, it is by no means a necessity. Moreover, such communication would be done through private e-mail accounts since there is no forum or listing of individual e-mail addresses on their web-site: http://www.brtable.org/. BRT does use e-mail lists to send out information to members and outside participants who wish to receive BRT updates. In addition, BRT does have a few grassroots campaigns run through Internet links on their site, but this is not essential for their voice to be heard on Capitol Hill or at the White House. It is more of a luxury for their visitors than it is a necessity for their political operation. The primary use of the BRT web-site is for publicity of the organization, informing the public about their positions and initiatives, and providing links to BRT projects, associated web-sites, letters to politicians and the testimony of BRT members before Congress.
Empirically speaking, the Internet and associated technologies reduce the costs of political participation and group communication; However, financial costs are not an issue for members of the BRT, most of whom have access to cell phones, corporate jets, and their own personal finances. This pertains directly to the Theory of Collective Action and the expected value equation: E (ca) = P * B – C. This equation means that the expected value of collective action (E (ca)) for the individual is equal to the probability that acting will achieve the desired results (P), multiplied by the benefits of achieving one’s goal (B), minus the costs of taking action (C). The BRT has what many refer to as a “privileged” position, due to the high profile nature of the group’s membership and their seemingly endless financial and capital resources. They have “political pull” and therefore, the BRT’s probability of effecting change is high, the benefits of achieving their goals are very high and their costs of taking political action are remarkably low. This maximizes all aspects of the equation above. Thus, collective action by BRT members is not only rational, but also very practical for all members.